Sam Simmonds and Henry Slade were among several Exeter players to enhance their British & Irish Lions tour prospects in front of a watching Warren Gatland as the Chiefs struck a big psychological blow in the Premiership title race. The league leaders Bristol finished a clear second on the night and the gap between the top two sides has now been cut to eight points with five rounds to play.
This will rank among Exeter’s most satisfying displays of the season to date and, along with the classy Simmonds and Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and the returning Jack Nowell also took the opportunity to show Gatland what they can do. The defending champions were consistently sharp and energetic and, having built a 10-point first-half lead, never appeared in danger of being reeled in.
Not for the first time Simmonds and Slade both looked top-level performers, with their head coach Ali Hepher again hailing the former’s ability. “He’d add to any team, he is absolute quality. It’s like having an eighth back and that pace is key for us.” While Slade was equally impressive defensively, the try scoring glory went to Sam Skinner, Tom O’Flaherty and Jacques Vermeulen, with the Chiefs’ failure to collect a try bonus point the only faint visiting disappointment.
For all the Lions candidates on display it was a crucial night regardless of the outcome. With both clubs out of Europe this was effectively the last chance to stake a claim for the tour party to South Africa before the squad is named on 6 May and Nowell, in particular, looked hungry to make an impression on his first league start of the season.
It was the Bears, though, who opened the scoring, a slickly executed attack from deep bearing fruit when Andy Uren wriggled out of O’Flaherty’s tackle and sped 25 metres to score. On a lovely still evening it set the tone for a fast, fluctuating and free-flowing encounter.
One minute the electric Simmonds was galloping clear and threatening to outpace all comers, the next Niyi Adeolokun was threatening to score at the other end only for Nowell to produce a vital relieving tackle. The breakdown was also proving a particularly competitive area, with both sides visibly fancying themselves on the counter attack.
Exeter needed to keep their composure and assert themselves and duly did so in the 26th minute when their Scotland forward Sam Skinner finished off a typical close-range forward surge. There was even better to come six minutes later, a well-executed set move releasing Simmonds through another midfield hole. O’Flaherty had Stuart Hogg and Nowell outside them but declined to use them, dummying inside to add another eye-catching try to his growing collection.
This time captain Joe Simmonds added the conversion and a scrum penalty in front of the posts a minute before the interval then allowed the fly-half to stretch his side’s advantage to 15-5 at the break. Perhaps the most telling stat, though, was the penalty count. The Chiefs did not concede a single penalty in the opening 40 minutes and Bristol, for all their enterprise, were suddenly right up against it.
The Chiefs had never lost on six previous visits to Ashton Gate and the memory of their famous win over Racing 92 in the final of last season’s European Champions Cup was another happy memory. Only Clermont and Sale had previously beaten the Bears on home turf in this campaign but Vermeulen’s 55th-minute score pretty much guaranteed an end to the hosts’ six-game winning streak in the league.
While Bristol did try and stage a belated rally, wing Luke Morahan grabbing a try with two minutes left, there was never any danger of them repeating their victory at Sandy Park earlier this season. Their England prop Kyle Sinckler could not have the destructive effect he might have wished and the Bears visibly missed some key men, not least Callum Sheedy and Semi Radradra behind the scrum and Nathan Hughes at no 8.
Even the talented Max Malins could not exert much control at fly-half and, for once, Charles Piutau at full-back endured a sub-par game as well. There is still plenty of rugby to be played but Bristol now know that a revitalised Exeter will not be easily parted from their Premiership title.